Astronauts blow up room in orbit
NASA was slowly inflating a new experimental room at the International Space Station last night, with much better luck than the first try two days earlier.
Astronaut Jeffrey Williams opened a valve and introduced 22 seconds’ worth of air into the compartment then several more seconds. Mission Control reported noticeable growth in the structure, the first of its kind in space.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, barely expanded during Thursday’s inflation attempt. Experts believe the softsided compartment was packed up tight for so long before last month’s launch that the fabric layers had trouble unfolding.
Bigelow Aerospace provided this first inflatable room ever built for astronauts. NASA paid $17.8 million for the experiment, which could lead to an even bigger inflatable room at the space station. Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow considers BEAM a test bed for future inflatable habitats for tourists orbiting Earth as well as astronauts bound for Mars. Because expandable spacecraft can be compressed for launch, the rockets can carry more cargo, yet space travellers can still enjoy lots of room. The standard aluminium rooms that make up the space station can never be larger than what fits into a rocket.
The space station’s six astronauts won’t enter BEAM for at least a week, with the hatch remaining sealed. NASA wants to make certain it’s airtight before letting anyone inside. Even then, it will be off limits most of the time given its experimental status. BEAM is to stay attached to the lab for two years so engineers can measure temperature, radiation levels and its resistance to space debris impacts.